Peter Gabriel's impressive career neatly divides into three distinct eras: the progressive-rock years with Genesis (1969 to 1974); the first stretch of his solo incarnation (1977 to 1992), which saw him morph from a wildly inventive art-rocker into an unlikely pop star with "So" and "Us," and what will inevitably be the final act. And if the 60-year-old singer's output has slowed to a trickle during this last phase--with only two proper studio albums in the last 18 years--well, no one can accuse him of churning out recycled product like so many of his peers.
Yes, the covers album can be a sure sign of artistic bankruptcy, or at least a songwriting well run dry. But Gabriel's effort is distinguished by several twists, starting with his as-yet unfulfilled challenge to fellow musicians to return the favor by covering songs from his catalog. Next, the finest moments come not from fellow Baby Boom heroes such as David Bowie ("Heroes"), Neil Young ("Philadelphia") or Paul Simon ("The Boy in the Bubble"), but courtesy of much more current indie/underground acts including Bon Iver ("Flume"), Regina Spektor ("Après moi"), the Arcade Fire ("My Body is a Cage"), the Magnetic Fields ("The Book of Love") and Radiohead ("Street Spirit (Fade Out)").
On most of these songs, Gabriel bravely (and sometimes unsuccessfully) recasts the original upbeat readings into renditions that are much darker, more brooding and more introspective. But most daringly of all, given that his solo career has largely been defined by his innovative use of world rhythms, he relies solely on spare orchestral instrumentation and his voice, eschewing drums and percussion.
That voice has of course aged, but the growing scratchiness only enhances the fragile emotions and intimate vibe of the best of these readings. In the end, "Scratch My Back" doesn't break new ground, and it is unlikely to win new fans--unless we count some of the folks Gabriel has covered. But it ultimately is a much richer and more satisfying effort than his last studio disc, "Up" (2002), and it shows that he is still willing to stretch, take chances and challenge our vision of the singer we think we've known for more than four decades.